As The X Factor trudges, slowly but determined, towards the live performance rounds, the show moved this week into the judges' homes, where the contestants (split into groups by age) auditioned for their intended mentors. With the 120 auditioners who were invited to "boot camp" now whittled down to a relatively streamlined 24 acts (to be reduced once again to a final 16), these last two shows offered a preview of what we can expect. What we can expect, apparently, is a lot of mournful piano ballads.
No surprise there; that's standard pop-music currency, and certainly a popular choice on singing competitions, where it's easier to demonstrate your supposed vulnerability if you've got space to toss in a half-dozen extra notes every couple of bars and pretend to cry. But this week's episodes raised the ante by making slow, wounded dirges out of formerly upbeat pop songs.
And so you had Paige Thomas taking on Chris Brown's club-happy "Turn Up The Music" and David Correy sadding down Jessie J's formerly-ebullient "Domino." Perhaps looking to show that they were deeper than their ages might imply, the youngest group was the guiltiest of all, with four of the six young teens ignoring the fact that removing the frothiness from songs like Nicki Minaj's "Starships" (which Arin Ray gave a buttery R&B treatment) and especially Karmin's "Brokenhearted" (transformed into a sad-girl mope by Carly Rose Sonenclar) not only doesn't reveal the singers' serious side, it ignores whatever appeal the originals may have had in the first place. Most impressive was 13-year-old Diamond White, who took a song that was basically already a mournful, if anthemic, piano ballad (Avril Lavigne's "I'm With You") and ran it through the process again.
Not all of the songs that were slow and sad were as dramatically rearranged. Tara Simon and Vino Alan simply stripped down anthemic songs (Hoobastank's "The Reason" and Pink's "Sober," respectively), which is a different kettle of fish altogether. And the best performance of the week was by LYLAS (sic), who despite having been entirely manufactured out of fragments of the rejected young-girl contestant pool four days earlier, managed a sweetly vulnerable acoustic version of Shontelle's "Impossible."
But even when the rearrangements were simple and sensible, the result was still an nearly uninterrupted parade of slow, sad songs unfolding over two nights. Some of it was surely due to the instrumentation: an acoustic guitar and a keyboard. (No full-band jams for Demi Lovato's downstairs neighbors to complain about.)
Even so, a few singers found ways to acousticize their songs without losing their sprightliness. Strong performances or not, Jennell Garcia kept the bounce of "I Kissed A Girl," Nick Youngerman kept the swagger level of "Tik Tok" at "obnoxious" and Cece Frey avoided the temptation to play "Sexy And I Know It" for depressive irony. Whether there's any significance to be found in the fact that all three fell in the middle (young-adult) age group, neither kids nor withered oldsters (which for The X Factor means 25 and up), remains to be seen.
But while they weren't the only mid-to-uptempo songs of the week, they were in the minority. Which means that if this week was any indication of what's in store, it could mean that the most important contestant from last year's debut season wasn't winner Melanie Amaro or even Chris Rene, who's since had respectable real-world success; it was teenager Drew, who quickly settled into a downcast sulk and never budged. She seems to have set the tone for The X Factor's second season, where viewers should be prepared to see the softer side of songs, even with songs that don't have one.